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Compromise on civilian oversight gave mayor final say on superintendent, policy — but it won’t ever come to that, alderman says

Ald. Roderick Sawyer, among the Council’s prime backers of civilian oversight, predicted if things are so dire a no-confidence vote is needed, “that person is pretty much out the door anyway” and might even be fired before aldermen weigh in.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) speaks in support of a proposal for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department during a Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday, July 21, 2021 at City Hall.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) speaks in support of a proposal for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department during a Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday at City Hall.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A seven-member civilian oversight commission will not have the final word on police policy or the future of Chicago’s police superintendent, but it will never come to that anyway, according to one of the City Council’s oversight champions.

“If the superintendent is doing so poorly … that the public is asking for their removal — if we institute a vote of no-confidence and we get a two-thirds majority — we figure that person is pretty much out the door anyway,” Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) told the Sun-Times.

“I’d bet that person would be fired prior to us [aldermen] even getting to the final vote. That’s the kind of … community pressure that would be placed on the mayor to say, ‘I have to get rid of this person. ... It’s about to be embarrassing. Let me go ahead and pull the trigger. That person needs to go.’ “

The same goes for disputes over police policy — even if the mayor rejects the commission’s recommendation along with a written explanation.

“If the community feels strongly enough to say the commission’s vote is the correct vote, they will put pressure on the mayor, put pressure on us to do what they feel is right. If the community rises up and says, `We need you as Council members to override the mayor’s rejection’ and they do their job, then we would vote the community’s conscience with a two-thirds vote and confirm the commission’s decision,” Sawyer told the Sun-Times last week.

Pointing to other municipalities with a similar civilian oversight structure, Sawyer said, “They’ve either never got to that or got to that once or twice in their entirety of existence.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot wholeheartedly agreed.

“If you see a bunch of stuff getting elevated to the mayor’s level or to City Council, that’s a loss for everyone. It should be that there’s negotiations and compromise and collaboration between the commission and the police department. That’s what we all should be focused on and encouraging. Not the conflict,” Lightfoot said.

“If there’s a conflict and it has to come to me, it shouldn’t. If it does, obviously I’m gonna call balls and strikes. And if there’s a desire for the matter to go further to the City Council, we’ve created a mechanism for that. But that should be extraordinarily rare.”

David Brown is introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in April 2020 as her choice to lead the Chicago Police Department.
David Brown is introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in April 2020 as her choice to lead the Chicago Police Department. When the time comes that it’s obvious Brown — or any future CPD superintendent — has to be fired, a no-confidence vote by a civilian oversight board may not even be needed, Ald. Roderick Sawyer said Thursday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Sawyer is the son of former Mayor Eugene Sawyer, one of the most likable aldermen Chicago has ever known.

The relationships he forged with now-indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and former Ald. Edward Vrdolyak (10th) made him the Vrdolyak 29’s choice to become acting mayor after Harold Washington’s death in 1987 and helped Sawyer deliver much of Washington’s stalled legislative agenda.

In the marathon fight for civilian oversight, the younger Sawyer took a page from his father’s political book by forging his own unlikely partnership with North Side Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).

What lessons did he learn from his father?

“He told me, ‘Learn how to count.’ And, in this business, counting is [normally] 26. I always took that. I always make sure I try to count votes when I’m involved in something that needs support,” the younger Sawyer said.

“The other big lesson he taught me was to make friends. He said, ‘This business is about addition — not division. So you always try to add value by making friends because, he said, enemies came on their own. You didn’t have to try to make enemies. They naturally came. Try to make friends.”

The Chicago City Council is shown at its meeting on Wednesday, July 21, 2021, at which it created a mechanism for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.
The Chicago City Council is shown at its meeting Wednesday, at which it created a mechanism for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

With every turn of Lightfoot’s revolving door, Sawyer has questioned whether the mayor’s abrasive management style and propensity to micromanage and publicly criticize some department heads might be making it difficult for her to retain and recruit good people.

But he argued Thursday that Lightfoot’s decision to collaborate more and dictate less on civilian police oversight helped bring the protracted, and sometimes acrimonious, negotiations to a close.

“This last weekend, she’s come a long way in the spirit of collaboration. I compliment her on that. We needed that extra push and that couple of extra votes that she was able to provide for us to get this thing over the top,” Sawyer said.

“That’s showing that’s she’s coming away from where she started when she first got into the office a couple of years ago. That’s something that needs to be worked on. If I was going to make a constructive criticism, the collaboration portion is something that could be worked on. Last week, it was a good start.”

Asked whether he is considering a run for mayor in 2023, Sawyer said: “My thoughts right now are to be the best aldermen I can try to be. Constantly learning to improve myself and help improve my community. That’s where my concentration is right now today.”